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Daily Howler: Would it kill education writers to flesh out their gloomy tales?
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GUESS WHO’S DOING MUCH BETTER! Would it kill education writers to flesh out their gloomy tales? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2009

Guess who’s doing much better: In yesterday’s New York Times, Sam Dillon reviewed the new math scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress (the NAEP)—math scores from 2009, which were released this week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/15/09). As his principal focus, Dillon said that growth in nationwide math scores has slowed since the start of No Child Left Behind. Here’s the start of Dillon’s report:

DILLON (10/15/09): The latest results on the most important nationwide math test show that student achievement grew faster during the years before the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, when states were dominant in education policy, than over the years since, when the federal law has become a powerful force in classrooms.

Scores increased only marginally for eighth graders and not at all for fourth graders, continuing a sluggish six-year trend of slowing achievement growth since passage of the law, which requires schools to bring 100 percent of students to reading and math proficiency by 2014.

On the most recent test, 39 percent of fourth graders and 34 percent of eighth graders scored at or above the proficient level.

This is a reasonable observation—though that “sluggish six-year trend” will lead to remarkable achievement gains if it continues in the decades to come. That said, gains in math scores have been slower in the six years since NCLB (from 2003 through 2009) than in the seven years before that (from 1996 through 2003). Before we join Dillon in puzzling about the reason, let’s note a bit more of the unfortunate foolishness found in Dillon’s piece—foolishness which isn’t always his doing. (To review the new NAEP scores, click here.)

The foolishness starts in his second paragraph (see above). As Dillon quite correctly notes, the No Child Left Behind law “requires schools to bring 100 percent of students to reading and math proficiency by 2014.” The utter foolishness of this “requirement” has always beggared the imagination. Can Congress simply “require” all children to be “proficient” by some future date? Except as a motivational tool, the notion is utterly ludicrous—especially in a system where “proficiency” levels are established by subjective assessment. (Gerald Bracey has long argued that NAEP’s proficiency levels are set arbitrarily high.)

This “requirement” comes right out of the comic tradition of Chaplin’s strutting Great Dictator. But some experts, even sensible experts, will act as if the requirement makes sense. So we see when Dillon goes on to quote Chester Finn:

DILLON (continuing directly): “The trend is flat; it's a plateau. Scores are not going anywhere, at least nowhere important,'' said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization in Washington. “That means that eight years after enactment of No Child Left Behind, the problems it set out to solve are not being solved, and now we're five years from the deadline and we're still far, far from the goal.”

But then, the “goal” was always absurd, as was the notion that Congress could set a “deadline” for compliance. Meanwhile, the trend has been (relatively) flat for two years; but does that mean that overall progress has stopped? In fact, eighth-grade math scores did go up from 2007 to 2009, by two points on the NAEP raw score scale. But so what? The conventional gloom-and-doomism of education journalism is reflected in Dillon’s instant use of Finn’s quote, in which Finn makes a weirdly inaccurate statement. To wit:

If scores go up two points in two years, does that mean they’re going “nowhere important?” In fact, if scores go up ten points in ten years, that would mean that eighth graders were scoring roughly one grade level above their peers from a decade before. (We’re applying the conventional “ten points equals one school year” rule of thumb which Dillon uses in his piece—when it helps him produce a gloomy assessment.) What would make such a gain seem unimportant—except the need for shrieking alarmism?

For the record, two years is a short amount of time. From 2007 through 2009, fourth grade math scores stayed the same; eighth grade scores went up two points. Of course, you’d like to see larger gains—but two years is a short chunk of time. Ten years from now, these scores may seem like a statistical blip. There’s no way to know at present.

And by the way:

What has actually happened to math scores in the six years since No Child Left Behind took effect? (From 2003 to 2009?) In fourth grade, black kids’ scores have gone up six points; Hispanic kids have gone up five points. In eighth grade, the gains are larger. Black kids’ scores have gone up nine points, Hispanic kids have gone up seven. If ten points equals one school year, those are extremely strong score gains. But under prevailing laws of education writing, that rule of thumb can only be used to produce gloomy assessments! Pseudo-liberals refuse to tell you that black and Hispanic kids just keep doing better in math. Since they want you to admire their own greatness in matters of race, they will only use that rule of thumb to hand you gloomy assessments like this—assessments which stress their own heroic longing for racial justice:

DILLON: The latest scores were especially disappointing because score gaps between white and minority students did not diminish at all since the last time the math test was administered, in 2007. On average, the nation's fourth graders scored 240 on a 500-point scale, just as they did in 2007. White fourth graders, on average, scored 248, Hispanics scored 227 and blacks scored 222.

Eighth graders, on average, scored 283 on the same scale, up from 281 in 2007. White eighth graders, on average, scored 293, while Hispanics scored 266 and black eighth graders scored 261.

The gap of 32 points separating average black and white eighth graders represents about three years' worth of math learning.

Those achievement gaps are huge, of course, if we trust Dillon’s rule of thumb. (32 points represents about three years.) But two years is a short span of time. It isn’t clear what lessons we can draw from this narrow comparison.

As we’ve noted, blacks kids and Hispanic kids scored better in math this year than their peers in 2003. But darn it! White kids keep scoring better too, thus keeping those achievement gaps in place. (The gaps were reduced in eighth grade during that period. The black-white gap was reduced by four points.) It’s typical of upscale education reporting to say that the gaps remain daunting (which is certainly true), without saying that all three major groups—including black kids and Hispanic kids—are scoring substantially better over the time span at issue.

Back to Dillon’s basic premise: Why has overall progress seemed to slow in the years since No Child Left Behind? In this passage, he tries to puzzle it out:

DILLON: No one can say for certain why achievement progress has slowed since [No Child Left Behind] took effect, and Mr. Schneider and other experts warned that economic, demographic and social factors other than the law itself may be to blame.

But an unintended consequence of the law has been that many states have lowered the rigor of their standards and the difficulty of their tests to avoid sanctions the law imposes on failing schools, a process Secretary Duncan has called a ''race to the bottom.”

In fact, the slowing of growth has been less than gigantic. But why has growth slowed at all? After attributing a murky paraphrase to Schneider—a paraphrase he refuses to clarify—Dillon suggests that the “race to the bottom” may be the cause. That is always possible, of course. But we’ll offer another idea.

In fact, there has been massive gain in minority scores since NAEP began testing in 1969. There have also been large reductions in the massive achievement gaps which obtained at that time. Might we suggest a possible explanation? In many cases, urban school systems were “systems” in name only during those earlier years. When we taught in the Baltimore schools (starting in 1969), there was nothing resembling a real curriculum—certainly not for kids who were years “behind grade level”—and there was very little oversight of individual teachers. When we read Herbert Kohl’s famous account of his own teaching years in Harlem in the 1960s (36 Children), we see little sign that he was being supervised either. He says the curriculum stunk—and he threw it away. There is little sign that anyone noticed, reacted or cared.

In short, there was vast mismanagement in those days. It was waiting to be addressed. By now, much of the easiest fruit has likely been picked. Something similar may explain the situation Dillon describes in this passage:

DILLON: Enactment of the No Child Left Behind law in 2001 followed a decade dominated by a standards and accountability movement that brought deep changes to public schools. Educators and policy makers, in nearly every state, laid out standards as to what students were expected to know in each grade and subject, and required schools to use those standards to guide instruction. They also established standardized testing regimes intended to measure whether students were meeting the standards and to hold schools accountable for student achievement.

The federal law, proposed by President George W. Bush and passed by bipartisan majorities in Congress in his first year in office, sought to build on the standards movement with many new federal rules, including a requirement that states administer reading and math tests every year to students in grades three through eight and once in high school.

[...]

The latest results on the National Assessment show that in the six years since the law took effect, fourth-grade scores have risen by five points, to 240 from 235. That is slower growth than during the seven years preceding the federal law, when average fourth-grade math scores grew by 11 points, to 235 in 2003 from 224 in 1996.

As Dillon notes, No Child Left Behind was enacted at least ten years into the reign of the “standards and accountability movement.” We have often been critical of that movement’s limited focus. But whatever benefits that movement did have to offer, it may be that the easiest fruit had already been picked by 2002 or 2003, when NCLB’s directives began affecting schools.

That said, blacks kids and Hispanic kids did score better in math in 2009, as compared to their peers in 2003. Black kids scored nine points better at the eighth grade level! If Dillon’s rule of thumb is valid, those kids are almost one full year ahead of their peers from 2003. (Hispanic eighth-graders are up seven points.)

That would be massive progress.

We don’t know why it hurts upper-end writers to share such important facts with the public. If NAEP scores (and that rule of thumb) can be believed, black kids are doing much better in math. Would it kill the New York Times to tattle about this fact?

Those miserable gaps are part of the story. So are those gains in math scores.

Special report: Pushing back liberally!

PART 4—BUT IT’S JUST OPINION: The Fox News Channel pushed back at Anita Dunn—after she pushed back at them (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/15/09). But it’s just opinion, they seemed to be saying, explaining away a great deal of what happens on their network.

That is an utterly hapless rebuttal. But some major journalists seemed to be buying it. And it resembles the rebuttal we often hear from our comedians—and from Rush Limbaugh types:

But it’s just comedy, the jokesters will say. But I’m just an entertainer, Rush will typically say when he gets caught in misstatement.

Sorry. Misinformation gets spread by “opinion” and “jokes.” Skewed focus gets spread in those ways too. We’ll finish our series on Monday. In the meantime:

Smith says the magic word: We had to chuckle at something Stephen A. Smith said on Wednesday night’s Anderson Cooper. On his web site, Smith had attributed a bogus statement to Limbaugh—a “statement” El Rushbo hadn’t said.

On Wednesday, Cooper mentioned this fact. In lieu of making a simple retraction, Smith said a magic word. Top pundits know how to use it:

COOPER (10/14/09): Some of the quotes attributed to him—you used one of them about slavery. That was not something he ever said.

SMITH: I should have said “reportedly.” The other quote was accurate but the point is that there were a plethora of quotes that are on-line, for example, that he has adamantly and emphatically denied and nobody has found that there's any truth to that. But he is the same guy who did say that the NFL was like watching the Bloods and the Crips without weapons.

See how it works? If you plan to repeat a charge that’s untrue, you just have to throw in “reportedly!”

We advised you about this magic word many moons ago. “Reportedly” is “an all-purpose word that lets a writer repeat any tale that has ever been said.” So we advised you in 2003, discussing the way the press corps had gossiped, minced and clowned for a full month about Naomi Wolf (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/03).

For a real-time comment on this same topic, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/99. Here’s what Richard Cohen had typed in that morning’s Post, as the press corps’ disastrous “Month of Wolf” was getting started:

COHEN (11/2/99): Time magazine, which broke the story, and The Washington Post, which expanded it, tell us that [Wolf] sits in on strategy meetings and helped Gore prepare for his debate with Bill Bradley. (Is Bradley's coach Phil Jackson?) She's told him to "speak from the heart" which, given how Gore has recounted his family's tragedies, I thought he was already doing. She also—and this is critical—reportedly advised her candidate to use more olive green, brown and shades of tan in his wardrobe. Gore has complied. The polls have yet to record the difference.

To Cohen, it was “critical” that Wolf had “reportedly” advised Gore to wear more earth tones.

And it’s true—Wolf had reportedly done that! She just hadn’t done that in fact.

For children, “please” and “thank you” are magic words. For pundits, the magic word is “reportedly.” Wednesday night, the analysts shared a good solid laugh as Smith shared some shop talk with Cooper.

But it was only a joke: From that same column by Cohen: “Who else is on the payroll, Al—Richard Simmons?”

Cohen thus told a wonderful joke. Bush ended up in the White House.